In order to make this manageable, I’ve divided it into parts. I couldn’t just go into this without a background, so for that, read Part 1.
DISCLAIMER: If you do not have excellent credit, or you cannot pay off your credit cards every month, or you just swear off credit card use entirely, then most of this this isn’t for you and I absolutely would not recommend doing this unless you are committed to only using cards for regular spending and paying off the balance every month. Look at Step #2.5 – because that doesn’t involve credit card rewards – but the rest of it does.
At least 12 months before your trip (depending on your spending habits, maybe 18 months before your trip), you should begin this process if you are planning to hit steps 1, 2, and 3 (2.5 and 4 are really overkill but I just can’t leave well enough alone).
If you have a trip that is coming up sooner than that, but haven’t booked airfare yet, I would recommend going for steps 2 and 4 and leaving the rest of it out. That will give you money for park spending or meals and pay for your airfare.
This is lengthy, so here’s a shortcut to each section.
STEP 1: Acquire 50,000 points to stay on property at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort by having two members of the same household sign up for the SPG American Express Card.
You want to do this first, to ensure you can book your stay as early as possible and before you book your flights.
The Dolphin is a Sheraton resort, operated under Starwood. Starwood Preferred Guest is the loyalty program, and the Dolphin is a Category 4 Property, requiring 10,000 points per night. If you book four nights, you get the fifth night free, so it would be 50,000 points for six nights.
If you have stayed “on property” before at a Disney hotel – you’re probably thinking, “But the Dolphin isn’t a Disney hotel.” Well, you’re partially right. The Dolphin uses all Disney parks transportation, including boat transportation to Hollywood Studios and Epcot, and is eligible for extra magic hours. Because it is operated by Starwood and not Disney, you are not eligible to receive complimentary magic bands or travel on Magical Express airport transportation. If you want those perks, you could do one night at a value resort on your way in, get the bands and the magical express, and either do another night on the way back to the airport or book one-way airport transportation. If you already have magic bands from a prior trip, you can link them for this stay as well.
I was nervous having usually stayed at Disney-operated hotels and some of the reviews were not great, but lemme tell you.
The Dolphin is an Epcot area resort. It is also undergoing a major renovation where all rooms should be completed this year (we had a non-renovated room, and it was fine, too). The pool area is amazing and it has some of the best restaurants on property. All Epcot area resorts run around $300+ a night to stay. You are walking to distance to Hollywood Studios and the International Gateway entrance to Epcot. That’s amazing. Also, there are indeed perks of this not being a Disney-owned resort. The Dolphin operates mostly as a convention hotel, meaning a lot of the guests are not going to the parks. BIGGEST PERK (and you know this if you have ever stayed at Disney): the buses are NEVER crowded. You don’t have to wait for a second bus – whether leaving the resort or leaving the parks. You don’t have to stand with a cranky toddler who needs to sleep. We walked right on a bus with 10 people on it after Wishes at Magic Kingdom. If you have ever waited for a bus at 10 pm and had to get on with an overtired child, you know the struggle and you know this, in and of itself, is WORTH IT.
Ok, Melissa, back to the plan…
In order to get free nights at the Dolphin hotel, you and your spouse can sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card. Each card comes with a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $3,000 in three months (Annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year). Since I pay an exorbitant amount of money for daycare, this was easy. Then do the same for your spouse’s card. Don’t apply for the second card until you’ve completed the minimum spend on the first.
Combine your points. Since you are immediate family members, SPG allows you to transfer points to a family member living in your household. You can do it online, it is very easy. It costs 50,000 starpoints to stay six nights (it is 10,000 points per night, and the fifth night is free), and you have at least 56,000 points between the two of you. That’s enough for six nights, plus a little extra for an upgrade to a balcony room.
So by the end of 2015 I had met the minimum spend on both cards (and paid the balances in full every month). I transferred my husband’s starpoints to my account, and I saw that total number of 57,000 points or so. So I called the SPG line and told them I wanted to book a room and I gave them my dates. It’s important to do this at least six months in advance if you can, to make sure your dates are available. The Swan & Dolphin tend to block out rooms during certain times since it is a convention hotel.
“It’s 50,000 points,” the rep said.
I knew I had a little extra. “Do you have any point upgrades available?”
“Let’s see, we have a balcony resort view available for 1,000 points per night,” he said.
“Sure, I’ll take the balcony,” I said.
“Ok, you’re booked and you’ll be receiving an e-mail confirmation. But you will be responsible for the $25 nightly resort fee,” the representative said.
I hung up the phone.
What just happened? Did I just book six nights at the Dolphin and it literally cost me $25 per night? How is that even possible???
The same room was showing on their website for $2,400, PLUS the $25 nightly resort fee. I still didn’t fully believe it.
STEP 2: Acquire 50,000 points for your airfare from the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card. EDIT: This is now 40,000 point bonus, not 50,000 with a $1,000 minimum spend.
( With my referral link here, you will get 50,000 points. If you go to their website and try to sign up, it will only be 40,000 points. So, win win for both of us if you use this link. Just sayin’.) This card comes with a $69 annual fee that is not waived in the first year. That 50,000 points equates to around $800 or $900 in airfare. If you are flying from Philadelphia this should be no problem to get you four flights roundtrip to Orlando.
When it came time to book my flights, I went on the website and had enough points to purchase the four flights I needed. “This is great,” I thought. It costs me all of $44 for four flights and roughly 50,000 points from Philadelphia to Orlando. But it gets better.
Everyone knows Southwest doesn’t charge change fees – but in addition to that, they will also refund you if the price drops on your flight. You “change” your flight online to the same flight with the lower price – Southwest refunds you the difference (if you pay with cash, you get a travel voucher that is good for one year from the original purchase date – but if you pay with points, you just get your points back – no catch!). So I decided to keep an eye on the flight costs and sure enough, there were multiple fare sales. I eventually got back 20,000 of the original 50,000 I used. So I had 20,000 points to use on another trip at a later date. Awesome!
Middle and completely unnecessary Step 2.5: Decide you want to stay in Animal Kingdom Lodge for one night because 6 nights at the Dolphin just isn’t enough, and because you want the magic bands, and “Hello! Bucket list!”
It’s March now, and I know that Southwest is going to release flight schedules soon. I’ve already got my points but I hadn’t actually booked the flights yet. But I had an idea. I kind of wanted to add another day to our trip. I didn’t have enough points for another night at the Dolphin, but I had read about being able to stay in Disney Vacation Club villas at a fraction of the price of booking through Disney by renting points from DVC owners. I had read a lot about this so I was really familiar with the process (I will post a separate blog on that entirely, it’s just too much for one post), so I found someone on Mouseowners.com who had some extra points she was willing to rent. I rented a Savanna View Studio at Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first night of our trip. It cost me about $175 (a splurge compared to the Dolphin, but this room goes for over $500 with taxes on Disney’s website!). I could have booked a standard view for $155, but I figured, go big or go home. You’re at AKL and it’s one night, and taking the rest of this trip on a shoestring could afford us a splurge. When I received the e-mail confirmation for the Animal Kingdom room, I really couldn’t believe it.
Did I just book us a savanna view room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for $175?? I’m used to staying at value rooms!
Back to original plan…
STEP 3: Acquire points for cash toward your park tickets.
There are a number of cards that let you do this – what you are trying to do is sign up for a card that lets you get statement credit as a signup bonus for travel purchases. I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It had a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in three months (I had a kid in daycare, and I put all of my monthly spend on this card, so again, totally doable), plus an additional 5,000 if you add an authorized user (and 2x points on dining, travel, etc.). By the time I met the minimum spend and added the additional user, I had acquired 59,000 points – enough for $590 toward reimbursement of park tickets. I purchased my park tickets through undercover tourist, and received double the points for the purchase. I bought 7 day park hoppers, and saved about $60 each purchasing from Undercover tourist than through Disney (and Chase doesn’t reimburse you for park tickets purchased through Disney because somehow it doesn’t count as travel, I still can’t figure that out, but just trust me on this). It was super easy. I then submitted for the reimbursement through Chase (easy to do, can do it through your phone) and received a statement credit. I got back about $660 of the roughly $1200 I spent on park tickets with the signup bonuses and regular spending.
If you wanted to take this a step farther – you could have you and your spouse sign up for the card – and then you would be able to get even more $ off the tickets. But my husband was already having enough of me signing him up for cards (really, I only signed him up for one card) so we just did the one.
So far I’m in the hole about $700 for three park tickets, six nights at the Dolphin, and park tickets.
Melissa’s (completely optional) Step 4: (Because I can’t leave well enough alone)
Sign up for the Disney Visa to get a $200 gift card for meals, incidentals, or more $ toward park tickets
By now it’s June before our trip, we are all booked and everything is paid for (or not paid for, hahaha!). We’re just going to be responsible for our meals, and I had purchased a couple Disney gift cards when different offers popped up from retailers on gift cards (another post entirely). Between me and my husband I had signed up for three new cards in the last year and he signed up for one. My credit score was as good or better than when I started. I still had zero credit card debt. Then the Disney Visa offer came up, so I thought, why not? This is a no annual fee visa that gives you a $200 gift card after you spend $500. Easy enough. I had the gift card within two weeks of opening the card.
Step 5: Book roundtrip ground transportation – and – GASP! – just pay cash for it.
The only thing left I needed for our trip was airport transportation. The Dolphin does not participate in Magical Express, but of course I could have used it for the beginning of our trip since I booked at Animal Kingdom Lodge, but I decided to just go ahead and book roundtrip transportation. I found a private airport shuttle for $110 roundtrip. It was like VIP service, and they even made a grocery stop for us so we could purchase snacks. I took advantage of this and purchased some granola bars, water, sandwiches, etc. for a couple of days and coffee creamer (free coffee in the room is great but I am not using that powdered creamer. Bleh). We may be staying deluxe, but I still don’t want to spend money unnecessarily.
Taking the trip – is it too good to be true?
So my final tally was 4 cards for me, and 1 for my husband. I had a $200 Disney gift card and everything else was paid for and booked, and we spent about $890 for about $5,000 worth of travel.
Up until we actually went on the trip, there was still part of me that thought, it was in fact, too good to be true. What if the airport transport doesn’t go as planned? It did. What if the Dolphin is cockroach infested? It wasn’t. In fact, it was amazing. What if they won’t transfer our luggage from Animal Kingdom to the Dolphin? They did, no questions asked.
This trip was the best trip we have taken so far, and was probably only more expensive than the first trip I took with my family at the Days Inn. Perhaps one day I will elaborate on the trip in a blog post. But for now, you’ve got to get working on planning that trip – and I didn’t want to waste any more of your valuable time!